IND vs SA | How and where South Africa can win the Pune Test

IND vs SA | How and where South Africa can win the Pune Test

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In case you’re wondering, no, this is not a parody. From Sri Lanka whitewashing South Africa to Ben Stokes’ stupendous Headingley knock to Afghanistan outclassing Bangladesh, a lot has happened in Test cricket in 2019, so maybe, there’s a chance of us once again witnessing the impossible?

While on paper, the Vizag defeat seems like a crushing one - and it was - there were still enough silver linings from the game for the South Africans to draw inspiration from. They discovered and showed grit, courage and intrepidity that nobody thought existed in the first place and had standout individual performances, with some even shrugging off demons of the past. In Pune, they will have their task cut-out, no doubt, but a combination of them learning from their mistakes in Vizag and a bit of luck might just help them spring a surprise in the second Test.

Attack India’s top-order with pace, not spin

Travelling teams often get deceived into the trap that is spin. In Vizag, the Proteas fell prey to the same. They fielded not one, not two but three spinners, at the expense of an extra batsman. They resorted to spin just eight overs into India’s first innings and with a hard and new ball offering little turn for the spinners, and it ended up inflicting double damage, denting Keshav Maharaj’s confidence while also allowing the Indian openers to settle down. As a matter of fact, since the start of 2015, visiting pacers have fared better than visiting spinners in India, especially when it comes to tightening the screws.

 Visiting spinners in India since Jan 1, 2015 © Statsguru
 Visiting pacers in India since Jan 1, 2015 © Statsguru

With one of the best pace attacks in the world at their disposal, the Proteas will have to back their strength and crush the misconception about spin being king, because clearly, it is neither their strength nor is it India’s weakness. More so, if anything, the Indian middle-order of Rahane-Vihari-Saha-Jadeja are more vulnerable to spin than the top-order, with the top four all thriving on playing the spinners. 

Everyone remembers India’s crushing defeat to Australia in Pune two years ago, a wicket which is often referred to as a “minefield” or a “dustbowl”, but interestingly, in the very first innings, the floodgates were opened up by Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, who accounted for all of the first three wickets to fall. 

Hence, it would make more sense for South Africa to come at India all guns blazing with their pacers, preferably three and not two, make inroads early, set the tone up-front and then get them set up a platform for someone like a Maharaj to come in and exploit, rather than expecting the spinners to shoulder the responsibility of taking wickets from the very beginning.

Smash Ravindra Jadeja, snatch control from India

It is not rocket science that Ravindra Jadeja is key to India’s control and in fact, it was as clear as crystal in Vizag, where South Africa kept switching their approach whilst facing the left-armer. Aggression and positive intent bogs down any spinner, but for someone like a Jadeja, who thrives on control, it becomes all the more important. You let him settle and find his rhythm, he will keep bowling in the same areas throughout the match and make life hell. 

In the first innings of Vizag, Jadeja finished with figures of 2/124. Aiden Markram smashed him for a boundary in the very first ball of his spell and throughout the entirety of the innings, from Elgar to du Plessis to de Kock, there was a conscious attempt to take the attack to the Saurashtra man and it ended up paying rich dividends. Jadeja’s second innings, however, was a tale of two spells. The first one, when South Africa were tame, cautious and conservative, where he had figures of 9-4-19-4 and the second one, post the entry of Dane Piedt - who took the attack to him - where he accumulated figures of 16-2-68-0. Unsurprisingly, this very same patch was also South Africa’s best phase of batting on Day 5, as for an hour or two, they looked in complete control and made Kohli & co work hard, much to the contrast of the expected script.

By unsettling Jadeja, South Africa take control away from one end, meaning a Shami or an Ashwin cannot bowl with the same freedom that they do when Jadeja usually strangles the batters. To have any chance of putting India under pressure, the Proteas would need to go in with a pre-fixed mindset of unsettling Jadeja, even if it means losing a couple of wickets. 

Keshav Maharaj needs more support and less pressure on his shoulders

South Africa’s rotation of bowlers and workload distribution in Vizag was in all fairness, a joke. On paper, they fielded three spinners. But realistically, it was just Maharaj. The Proteas spinners bowled 132 overs in total in Vizag and astonishingly, 77 of them (58%) were bowled by Maharaj alone. Piedt and Muthusamy were mere passengers, literally, and at no point did it look like they were hunting in packs. India, on the other hand, bowled 143 overs of spin, of which 65 (45%) were bowled by Jadeja and 66 by Ashwin (46%). 

Du Plessis did not trust Piedt and Muthusamy as much as Maharaj, which is understandable, yet dumping such a preposterous workload on one spinner is flabbergasting and not productive by any means. Once Piedt was hit out of the attack, South Africa had no answers, no plan B to tackle the situation and it ultimately led to their downfall. Du Plessis needs to be wary of this fact come the Pune Test and should such a situation arise yet again, a more logical option would probably be to throw the ball to Dean Elgar. After all, in this squad, no South African has taken more wickets in India than Mr. Elgar. 

In all fairness, all South Africa would need to do is mirror what they do back home - while Maharaj plays the supporting act and keeps things tight at one end for the pacers there, here, the roles would need to be reversed. On the contrary, should the Proteas opt for two (or more) spinners yet again, du Plessis would have no option but to trust the others, for you cannot expect Maharaj to do all the damage on his own. 

Despite all the beating that was meted out to the left-armer in the first Test, Maharaj, still, is South Africa’s best bet to run through the Indian batsmen and for that, he needs more support, more freedom and less workload.  

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